After Fleeing Bias at Home, Gay Russians Say It Persists in Brooklyn

For many years, Denis Kruglenko treated life as if it were a delicately calibrated performance. A gay man living in Belgorod, Russia, he knew that even appearing to be homosexual could be perilous. He did what he could to conceal his sexual orientation but it never seemed to be enough. Once, he was beaten up for wearing a pair of pink socks.

In 2014, not long after President Vladimir V. Putin signed sweeping anti-gay measures into law, Mr. Kruglenko fled to New York and applied for asylum. He arrived with little English or money, and found a home in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.

The area, which is filled with Russian-speaking immigrants, offered the comforts of familiar foods, his Slavic language and landlords who accept cash payments. But he quickly found that southern Brooklyn resembled Belgorod in another way: His new neighborhood abounded with the same virulent homophobia he had hoped to escape.

“It was almost like I’d never left Russia,” Mr. Kruglenko, 25, said. “Being gay around here is a constant danger.”

As growing numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender exiles from Russia move to Sheepshead Bay and other southern Brooklyn neighborhoods, many of them say they have been subjected to intense discrimination by members of older generations who adhere to the harshly conservative principles of their homeland.

“We’re surrounded by Russians, but it’s like they’re all frozen in time with these old Soviet values,” said Lyosha Gorshkov, 32, who moved from Russia to Midwood in 2014. “I get nonstop abuse from everyone in the neighborhood: women in my building, men outside of bars, even children.”

On Saturday, about 200 people gathered on the boardwalk for Brighton Beach Pride, a demonstration arranged by RUSA LGBT, an advocacy group. Billed as the nation’s first march for Russian-speaking lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the rally was led primarily by asylum-seekers but also included others from around New York City.

As a marching band played traditional Slavic music, the crowd chanted in Russian and English and held signs that read “Refuse Fascism,” “Silence = Death” and “Nyet to Homophobia.” Many protesters wore pink triangles, echoing the badges used to identify gay men in Nazi concentration camps.

“Many of us never dreamed of being out in public here,” said Colette Montoya-Sloan, 34, an audio archivist who works at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. “But it’s important to lead grass-roots marches in places where pride isn’t necessarily accepted.”

Masha Gessen, a journalist who fled Russia because of persecution against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, told the crowd, “Pride is political.”

“Pride is about going into a place where it can be frightening,” said Ms. Gessen, 50, who was one of several featured speakers at the rally. Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, was another.

“We need to embrace you in Brighton Beach,” Ms. James said. “It’s critically important. And as the Russian community grows in Brooklyn and all throughout the city, we need to let everyone know that the L.G.B.T. community is welcome there as well.”

The march comes at a crucial moment for Russians seeking asylum in the United States because of their sexual orientation. This year, authorities in Chechnya, a semiautonomous region in Russia, began a violent crackdown on gay men that included kidnappings, torture and killings. Nonetheless, advocacy groups said they expected the United States to deny visas to those attempting to flee that anti-gay campaign.

If such requests are rejected, it would contrast sharply with the situation under President Barack Obama, whose administration adopted several policies meant to protect those seeking asylum because of their sexual orientation. During those years, RUSA LGBT saw its membership skyrocket, said Yelena Goltsman, the group’s founder.

Ms. Goltsman, 54, once lived in Gravesend but moved away years ago because she did not feel comfortable there. Even today, she says, many gay people who live in her old neighborhood are still in the closet.

“It’s certainly better than Russia, but what kind of sanctuary is this if people can’t even live openly here?” said Ms. Goltsman, who now lives in Forest Hills, Queens, with her wife.

For the day, at least, some of them came out of hiding. Andrey, 30, a gay man who moved from Moscow to Midwood seven months ago and declined to provide his surname, said it was the first time he had dressed in drag in public without fear. As he strolled down the boardwalk in a red floral dress and ornamented Russian headdress, he posed with a wide smile for a photographer.

“Don’t I look lovely?” he said.

by Noah Remnick
Source – The New York Times